One week a month, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new show coming out that week. This week, we’re looking at teen dramas, as The CW’s Riverdale prepares to throw the subgenre’s greatest hits in a high-speed blender.
My So-Called Life, “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities” (season one, episode 19; originally aired 1/26/95)
In terms of its emotions, characterizations, and dialogue, My So-Called Life was and remains one of the more realistic teen dramas to ever air on television. But stylistically, the show’s single season was occasionally prone to flights of fantasy that bordered on dippy, especially when holidays were involved. There’s the Halloween episode where 15-year-old Angela Chase (Claire Danes) has visions of the past, and the Christmas episode that augments a gritty story about teen homelessness with a subplot about an angel played by singer-songwriter Juliana Hatfield.
But in the last episode of the season and series, creator Winnie Holzman pulls together the show’s realism and its dreamier elements, more literally than usual—“In Dreams Begin Responsibilities” opens by dramatizing Angela’s recurring anger dream about Jordan Catalano (Jared Leto) and continues with nearly every major character describing (or half-describing) their own weird dreams. Most of them remain unseen, but there is an onscreen depiction from Angela’s mom, Patty (Bess Armstrong), featuring a Princess Diana cameo (“not another Princess Diana dream,” Angela interjects with a near-audible eye roll, just one example of how fully realized these characters are).
The characters may be especially reflective because they’re at a finale-friendly crossroads, many of them having landed in unexpected pairings over the course of the series: Nerdy Brian Krakow (Devon Gummersall) in budding friendships with both Rickie (Wilson Cruz) and, less probably, his tutee Jordan; Sharon Cherski (Devon Odessa) reconnecting with Angela but also newly sympathetic toward Rayanne Graff (A.J. Langer). There’s also the matter of Brian’s ever-present crush on Angela, in this episode given voice by Jordan, who lets Krakow be his Cyrano in a desperate attempt to win Angela back.
That plot twist is borderline hoary, and it wouldn’t be shocking if My So-Called Life got caught between emotional realism and soapy escapism, as so many teen dramas do. But the writers of this particular teen drama have a real gift for letting both qualities coexist—for finding the realism underneath the teenage soap. They also, crucially, find cringeworthy poetry within that realism, as with an overwrought but effective apology letter from Jordan to Angela—ghostwritten by Brian. This is an episode unafraid of sweet sincerity but also willing to see its characters honestly.
There’s a fair amount of plot to cover as My So-Called Life wraps up its run, but the episode—one of the series’ best—still has room for smaller pleasures, like choice observational narration from Angela (“It’s so weird when you see someone you just dreamed about, like it’s gonna show”), the self-conscious way Patty talks about her ex-boyfriend, and the weakest definition of irony this side of Alanis Morissette, courtesy of supposed wordsmith Brian (who describes it as “when you realize, like, the component of weirdness in a situation”). The show ends with the richness that characterized its whole run—and a potent reminder of both how much this teen drama was capable of, and how much its deft balancing act is still missed.